What Leads to Positive Changes in Student Learning?

What Leads to Positive Changes in Student Learning?

Jul 29, 2021

The Relationships Between Instructional Practices and the Instructional Core Regarding Student Learning

This is the third post by one of our 2021 summer interns based on their project and the assessment and accountability issues they are addressing this summer with their Center mentors. Sarah Wellberg, from the University of Colorado Boulder, is working with Carla Evans to investigate issues related to the relationship between the use of complex performance assessments and efforts to promote instructional practices that improve student learning. Sarah and Carla have prepared two posts describing their work this summer.

Richard Elmore and colleagues argue that in order to change student learning outcomes the rigor of the content students experience must change, the knowledge and skills that teachers bring to the teaching task much improve, and students must be engaged in what they are learning. The bi-directional and overlapping relationships among these three elements form the basis of student learning. In other words, the relationships among the instructional core of the students, the teacher, and the content need to be altered to bring about positive changes in student learning. Changing one element in isolation, or changing something outside of the core, will not result in positive changes in student learning, according to Elmore and his colleagues. 

Unfortunately, policies that are meant to inspire instructional change often do not account for these relationships and overestimate the ease with which teachers can change their teaching practices in meaningful ways. Policies that rely on assessment to improve student learning outcomes, for example, often do not have the intended effect on instructional practice (Alexander et al., 2017Hanushek & Raymond, 2004).

Rather, high-stakes assessments tend to result in the narrowing of curriculum to the tested topics.  This narrowing occurs with both traditional (Au, 2007Pedulla et al., 2003Polesel et al., 2014Stecher et al., 2000) and performance assessments (Parke & Lane, 2008Stecher & Mitchell, 1995). The increase in instructional time spent on tested topics does not typically have positive results because altering the content of a teacher’s lessons is insufficient on its own to change student learning outcomes (Polikoff & Porter, 2014).

Six Key Instructional Practices

We used three existing frameworks for quality teaching – Ambitious Teaching Practices (Ball, 2019), Danielson’s Framework for Teaching (Danielson, 2013), and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS, 2002) – to identify the following six instructional practices that teachers may adopt in response to the inclusion of performance tasks in state or local assessment systems:

  1. Using high-quality questions and prompts (Danielson, 2013)
  2. Integrating components of knowledge with habits of thinking (NBPTS, 2002)
  3. Actively engaging students in learning (Danielson, 2013)
  4. Learning through discussion (Ball, 2019; Danielson, 2013)
  5. Eliciting and interpreting student thinking (Ball, 2019)
  6. Giving students multiple opportunities to showcase their knowledge and abilities (NBPTS, 2002)

In order for a teacher to make a change in response to policy, they need the disposition and the capacity to do so (McLaughlin, 1990). If a teacher does not agree that the intended changes are valuable, they will likely not adopt new practices. Similarly, if a teacher sees the value in a new practice but does not have the materials or the training to effectively implement it, then attempts at implementing new techniques may be unsuccessful.

We examined each of the six practices and determined the relationships between each pair of elements within the instructional core (student-teacher, student-content, and teacher-content) that would be observable if the practices were implemented with fidelity. We then identified the dispositional and the capacity assumptions that would need to hold for those relationships to be observed. We organized these ideas using observation-assumption triangle diagrams, a generic version of which is shown in Figure 1. 

Figure 1: The Observation-Assumption Triangle

The Relationships Between the Selected Instructional Practices and the Instructional Core

We developed one of these triangles for each of the six practices, and we found that some key assumptions were repeated across multiple practices. The most common are the dispositional assumption that the teacher sees the value in having students engage in meaningful, complex tasks and the capacity assumption that the teacher has access to high-quality curricular materials.  Other common assumptions include (a) the teacher establishing a safe environment in which students feel comfortable and confident to take risks and (b) the teacher knowing which tasks will motivate their students.

In our next blog post we will discuss the ways that states, districts, and/or school leaders may use these observation-assumption triangles to promote and monitor changes to classroom instruction resulting from the implementation of performance-based assessment reforms.

Practice 1. Observation-Assumption Triangle for “Using High-Quality Questions and Prompts”

Assumptions marked with * are present in more than one observation-assumption triangle.

Practice 2. “Integrating Components of Knowledge with Habits of Thinking”

Practice 3. Observation-Assumption Triangle for “Actively Engaging Students in Learning”

Practice 4. Observation-Assumption Triangle for “Learning Through Discussion”

Practice 5. Observation-Assumption Triangle for “Eliciting and Interpreting Student Thinking”

Practice 6. Observation-Assumption Triangle for “Giving Students Multiple Opportunities to Showcase Their Knowledge and Abilities”